This article could turn into a longer, more academic piece later so I’m eager to hear what people think of it. Please add to, contradict, or raise questions in the Comments section. I’ll follow it up later in the week with a post on what an active GCC means for Washington.
By Matthew M. Reed
For thirty years the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been dismissed as inconsequential. Composed of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain, and established to promote political, military, and economic integration, the GCC could point to few accomplishments before 2011. A common currency eludes them. Militarily, American forces or more sizable armies in Iraq or Iran always eclipsed the GCC’s Peninsular Shield force. Beyond that, the Council could never be mistaken for an active diplomatic powerhouse.
But today’s GCC is changing fast. Indeed, the Council can no longer be dismissed. Recently coordinated diplomatic, military, and economic policies have challenged the organization’s reputation. Council members meet tomorrow and when they do, they will discuss Jordan’s possible membership as well as regional developments. Their response to those developments proves the GCC has been more active this year than in any previous year since its creation in 1981. Moreover, this strategic reorientation is not temporary. Circumstances guarantee “active” is the new normal for the GCC.
A Major Deployment
On March 14, Peninsular Shield forces entered Bahrain in what can only be described as their first meaningful deployment ever. Their mission was simple but significant. GCC forces allowed the Sunni rulers of Bahrain to reestablish security. Forgive me for not deconstructing the drama in Bahrain more thoroughly but what matters here is the logic of intervention. In February and March, Bahrain—a Shia-majority country run by a Sunni-minority royal family—experienced widespread protests. Some Arab leaders feared the worst: according to them, either the regime would collapse and its successor would become sympathetic to Iran, a Shia power; or, once the conflict became drawn out, Iran would intervene and create an outpost on the Arab side of the Gulf. While there’s no evidence Iran aided the protests, the threat alone was enough to prompt action. It was a show of force unprecedented in the history of the GCC, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent approximately 1,500 soldiers and policeman, and in so doing fired a warning shot at Tehran. (Prior to the Bahraini intervention, Peninsular Shield forces were mobilized twice: once during the Gulf War and again during the Iraq invasion of 2003. They had zero impact in both cases.)
This newfound military adventurism has been matched by diplomatic activism. The thrice-failed GCC deal aimed at defusing tensions in Yemen is a great example. Led by Saudi Arabia, the Council offered a deal whereby President Saleh of Yemen would leave his post and new elections would be hosted with the official opposition hoping to make gains. The deal was flawed and controversial. Yemen’s official opposition, after all, is representative of established tribal and political interests—and empowering it at the expense of Saleh’s ruling party would not guarantee that hundreds of thousands of street protestors would ever help create a new, democratic Yemen. But the deal was an historic gesture for the GCC. It’s also worth noting that, while the deal wasn’t perfect, it was good enough to be rejected by Saleh three times. That says something.
Libya offers another curious example of a new activist streak. Remember that the GCC got out ahead of the Arab League back in March. In truth, the GCC was the driving force in deliberations that ultimately resulted in the League’s approval of NATO’s no-fly zone. While Qaddafi alienated himself from the Arab public and their leaders, it was the GCC—specifically Saudi Arabia and Qatar—that made the case for intervention. Bad blood between King Abdullah and Qaddafi might explain the GCC’s posture but it’s proof that the Council is ready and able to throw its weight around regionally—and with global implications.
And Libya was just the beginning. In a move that surprised many, the GCC began flirting with expansion and the inclusion of Morocco and Jordan this year. Both are monarchies, sure, but neither has significant ties to the Gulf. The argument could be made that Iraq or Yemen deserve consideration, while Morocco is nowhere close to the region, and Jordan’s military is their good luck charm—it’s hard to see what else they offer. The GCC flexed its diplomatic muscle again when, on August 6, they called for Bashar al Assad of Syria to end his bloody crackdown. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain went a step further and recalled their ambassadors two days later. One more signal that the GCC is willing to pursue tough diplomacy.
All the while, the GCC has complimented diplomatic and military moves with economic action. I’ve written extensively on Gulf aid packages this year and made the argument that the billions of dollars now changing hands in and beyond the Gulf is not strictly “counter-revolutionary.” Instead, what GCC member states hope to do is buoy old friends and make new ones by bankrolling states in transition, even if that transition is democratic. I suppose no post on the GCC would be complete without noting oil. At an OPEC meeting this past June, Saudi Arabia and its oil-pumping allies in the GCC (Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE) told OPEC’s rejectionist strain (including Iran and Venezuela) that they would expand production regardless of quotas in order to moderate prices and stabilize the global economy. The meeting made headlines because it supposedly “collapsed in disarray” but it actually enhanced the reputation of GCC members because they showed a willingness to challenge OPEC. (While the GCC has been more eager to spend money in the past, as in the Iran-Iraq war when oil-rich Gulf states helped pay for Saddam’s war effort, the scope and intentions are very different this time around.)
What Explains the GCC’s New Activism?
New and old strategic considerations are forcing the GCC to act in unison like never before. In the short-term, the Arab uprisings are changing the face of the region, forcing out once reliable partners, and challenging the organizing principle of monarchic systems. Guarding against this is natural and the similarities among GCC states make action agreeable for all. In the medium-term, we must remember that America’s profile in the Middle East will soon shrink significantly. 40,000 troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year. What will be left is a small American presence at major bases in each of the Gulf states. There’s talk too, and I’m sure this is raising eyebrows in some palaces, that the US may reconsider its basing arrangement in Bahrain given its chronic instability. And so it makes good sense for the GCC to take more and more responsibility for itself, its security, and its status, as the Americans prepare to leave. As for the long-term, Iran stands as the primary challenger to Arab-American dominance of the Gulf. This reality will motivate the GCC for years to come.
What Enabled This Activism?
The GCC has been changing under the surface for years. It’s only now that they’re taking bold action that these changes seem more meaningful. Chief among them is the improvement of Saudi-Qatari relations. Since the Council’s creation, the Saudis have dominated the GCC because their military clout, population, and oil production capacity combined to make them the natural pivot point for an organization that includes smaller states with fewer resources. This partially explains why the Peninsular Shield force has been the subject of ridicule: rulers with long-standing suspicions of the Saudis, dating back centuries, have been unwilling to put many troops under their command. Qatar, however, has stepped out of Saudi Arabia’s shadow in the last decade. Its international standing and possession of Al Jazeera make it a fuller partner than ever now in the GCC. Perhaps the best evidence of this is this year’s Libyan episode, when Qatar played a critical role in encouraging popular support for intervention through its news coverage and then supplying the rebels during their struggle. These internal changes, combined with Iran’s perceived ascendancy, enable cooperation like never before.